Green Light Your Race

Love the planet? Then it's time to go racing green


Posted: 29 October 2010

Is your passion for triathlon contributing to global warming? Are you guilty of littering and sloppy recycling habits? Does your need for speed conflict with your environmental ideals?

You might have never considered any of these questions but you probably should because the unfortunate truth is that triathlon can have a negative impact on the environment. You probably love being outdoors and like to see nature at its best, if for no other reason than a healthy environment makes for an enjoyable race. So whatever your feelings about individual responsibility for the environment, it's in your interest to help keep the planet in good shape.

Carbon footprint

Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to minimise the harm you may cause without compromising your performance. Jon Alexander explored these matters while he was training for Challenge Barcelona in 2009. His plan was to race while trying to minimise his carbon footprint. He says there are three main issues: kit, diet and transport. Where does your kit come from, who makes it, are the materials from sustainable sources and what happens to it when you no longer need it? Are these the questions you ask as part of your purchasing decision or is your only concern how fast it will make you go?

"Actually, the first question you should ask is whether or not you really need new kit," says Alexander. "It's nearly always the greenest option to keep using what you already have if you can, rather than buying something new, however sustainably it's been made."

Go green shopping

Luckily, if you do need to buy new kit, there are options that are environmentally friendly and fast. Take wetsuits, for example. A number of manufacturers have moved away from fossil fuel-derived neoprene to rubbers derived from limestone. One of these is blueseventy. "We use limestone-based Yamamoto rubber as much as we can," says Dean Jackson, Blue Seventy's global sales and marketing manager . "It's technically superior and we like the fact that the heat produced in the process is reused to warm water vats in which eels are bred."

Bamboo biking

If you're looking for a new bicycle, the temptation of a carbon-fibre machine can be almost irresistible, but have you considered bamboo? Calfee designs handcrafted bicycles with bamboo frames. Alexander rode one to a 5:51 bike split in Barcelona, so they're not slow. Craig Calfee of Calfee Design, says bamboo has several advantages over carbon. "Bamboo bikes' main performance feature is vibration damping. Additionally, they're more crash-tolerant. Although they are slightly less aerodynamic and a little heavier, it may be that vibration has a greater effect on performance than most athletes realise, particularly in long-distance races, and we're receiving lots of anecdotal feedback from riders to support this theory." They also look fantastic.

If switching to bamboo is a step too far, at least consider the oil you put on your chain. Simon Nash had a wake-up call while out on his mountain bike one day. "I cycled through a stream and saw some dirty oil wash off my bike. Suddenly I had visions of dead fish floating to the surface as a result of the poisonous petrochemicals I was leaving behind. "Nash began experimenting with vegetable-based oils until Green Oil was born, an award-winning, biodegradable, all-conditions wet lubricant. "We're also developing a dry lubricant and we already produce a biodegradable cleaner and a sustainably sourced wooden brush," he says. If your local bike shop doesn't yet stock Green Oil, let them know about it.

Degradable shoes

What do you do with your old running shoes? They might be horribly degraded by the time you've finished with them, but are they biodegradable? And what are they made from in the first place? Brooks, a running shoes and accessories company, has tried to address these questions with its Green Silence racing flat, a shoe the company says is both green and fast. "With the Green Silence we really wanted to see what could be done in terms of making a shoe that's environmentally friendly while sticking to our core principle of performance," says Martin Exley, Brooks sales and marketing manager. Exley says at least 75 per cent of the shoe is made from post-consumer recycled material and the midsole is biodegradable under the right conditions - these do not include leaving your shoes in a plastic bag in the boot of your car.

As well as the products you buy, it's worth looking at the packaging and distribution. Jackson says Blue Seventy has made a big effort to reduce the size of its boxes and to not use bleach. "We also ask our distributors to provide accurate and timely forecasts of demand so we can ship products by sea rather than plane," he adds. Similarly, Brooks uses recycled card and has eliminated glue and chemical inks from its shoeboxes.

As far as we know, there is not yet a high-performance green substitute for Lycra tri suits, and few serious athletes would be prepared to abandontheir body-hugging benefits in favour of, say, organic cotton. However, professional Ironman Toby Radcliffe says there's no reason triathletes can't be more selective about the rest of their wardrobe. He recommends Yew Clothing, a company that makes recycled polyester performance clothing from old plastic bottles and food containers.

Make minimal impact

Radcliffe is another athlete who tries to minimise the environmental impact of the sport he loves. He is a member of the Racing Green network and represents Athletes for a Fit Planet in Europe (www.afitplanet.com).

The manufacturers we spoke to are working to minimise their environmental impact, but as consumers we also have responsibilities. It's our job to ask the questions that show we care about these issues and to find out if we are doing enough to support the environment. For example, being a green triathlete is not just about choosing the right kit. What you eat also makes a big difference.

The meat debate


Training and racing burn lots of calories, which means triathletes have to eat more than sedentary people. For example, Alexander estimates he consumes around 5,000 calories per day when training. Because of the demands triathlon places on the body, triathletes should consume a decent amount of protein to protect and build muscle. For most people, that protein comes from meat. Unfortunately, the production of meat can cause serious environmental damage. Producing meat requires significantly more land than growing  vegetables or cereals, and huge quantities of water.

While preparing for Challenge Barcelona, Alexander eschewed meat and, instead, ate substitutes such as Quorn; as an occasional treat he would have a piece of fish. "Research from Worldwatch, an independent research organisation, suggests livestock may be responsible for more than half of all human-related greenhouse gas production," he says. "Changing my diet accounted for a large portion of my reduction in emissions."

For dedicated carnivores giving up meat may be a step too far, but how about cutting down? Radcliffe only eats it once or twice per week. "I try to eat wild meat - venison, for example, when I can afford it - rather than farmed meat, as farmed meat tends to be high in fat," he says. Otherwise he'll buy organic meat and he'll only eat fish that's been sustainably caught and is approved by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Come back down to Earth

So, with your kit and diet nicely greened up, you can now race with a clean green conscience, can't you? Well, sure, but not if you fly or drive to your chosen event. In 2008, Crystal Palace Triathletes staged the country's first carbon-neutral triathlon. Afterwards they commissioned a report on their efforts that said 95 per cent of the race's carbon imprint came from transport.

Next time you're planning to race, ask yourself whether you could do an event close to home, cycle to the venue, use public transport or share a lift. It all helps and may even boost performance. Alexander travelled by train to Barcelona and says he arrived feeling fresher and less stressed than people who flew.

Offset emissions

Radcliffe, who often has to fly to events, recommends that you try to do two events at the same location and ensure you offset your carbon emissions. In fact, you could also offset more broadly. "Within the constraints of being a professional athlete and striving for maximum performance I do my best to minimise my carbon imprint," says Radcliffe, "but at the end of year I look back and try to offset any emissions I couldn't avoid."

Sometimes it's the small things people notice and that make a difference. For example, instead of tossing your gel wrappers on the road, stuff them inside your tri suit for disposal later. Save CO2 cartridges for race-day emergencies and use a pump the rest of the time. Ultimately, there's no need to sacrifice speed for greenery, but it does take a little effort on your part.  

Racing green

Last year, Will Ashley-Cantello and a group of environmentally minded friends entered a number of triathlon and cycling events and came away disappointed by the waste they saw. "People discarded plastic bottles, gel wrappers and goody bags all over the place. We felt compelled to do something about it," he says.

That something was the creation of Racing Green, a network for people who want to race but are concerned about the impact of events on the environment. Racing Green encourages event organisers to adopt its "Six Spokes of Sustainability" plan for races. These include reducing waste and increasing recycling, showing respect to local communities and their environment and engaging and involving race participants.

Ashley-Cantello would love as many people as possible to join the Racing Green network and complete their survey.  


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